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  • Satori:Toward a Conceptual Analysis
  • Avery M. Fouts

One of the significant points of division between Zen Buddhism and Western thought is the status of the law of noncontradiction.1 In the West, no matter what our ontology, we have overwhelmingly regarded this law as indubitable. For example, Aristotle insists in his Metaphysics that the law of noncontradiction is the most certain of all first principles, the fabric of any significant assertion since any significant assertion can be distinguished from its contradictory.2 In the East, however, Zen Buddhists tend to view this law as provisional, and this presents formidable barriers to communication with the West. At particular issue is the interpretation of satori, the abrupt and momentary Enlightenment experience within the Rinzai school of Zen.

The West can learn much from Zen about the subtleties of unhealthy contradictions in consciousness. To this end, satori and the liberation found therein are phenomenological facts worthy of the deepest respect by the West. The problem, however, is that satori seems to demand an interpretation that is irrational according to Western canons of rationality. In light of this, the purpose of this paper is to interpret satori in a way that eases this purported irrationality. A first step is taken toward reconciling Zen and the West by accepting the challenge posed by D. T. Suzuki:

The position assumed by the Zen masters is this. They leave the logical side of the business to the philosopher, and are content with conclusions drawn from their own inner experiences. They will protest, if the logician attempts to deny the validity of their experience, on the ground that it is up to the logician to prove the fact by the instruments which he is allowed to use. If he fails to perform the work satisfactorily—that is, logically to confirm the experience—the failure is on the side of the logician, who has now to devise a more effective use of his tools.3

In the first section, the logic of the Zen experience is examined through the writings of Suzuki, traditionally regarded as the best expositor of Zen to the West and one who specifically deals with the present theme. While Suzuki does not represent the whole of Zen, he nonetheless "stands in the first rank of the cultural bridge builders between Asia and the West during the twentieth century."4 In the second section, the notion of "intentional identity," the nondualism inherent in cognition, [End Page 101] is elucidated with the help of certain existential Thomists. There is a paradox intrinsic to intentional identity that is just as paradoxical as anything Suzuki claims. I contend that it is this paradox that lies at the heart of satori, and the fact that it has been recognized in the West provides the foundation for the reconciliation. In the third section, it is shown that the first-person subject possesses a prereflective self-consciousness in first-order experience of an external object. This allows us to insert a subject-object dualism into satori, all the while agreeing with Suzuki that the latter experience transcends reflection. In the fourth section, all of the above elements are brought together to provide a conceptual analysis of satori in which rationality is maintained, on the one hand, and the integrity of the experience is maintained, on the other.

Illogical Zen

In the Zen tradition, the Absolute, if the term may be used, is nondual; therefore, any affirmation of the Absolute in the form of A as opposed to not-A is to sunder its sacred unity because in the Absolute there are no distinctions whatsoever. For this reason, even though the experience of the Absolute is positive in nature, any attempt to express the truth that lies therein must in the final analysis be by negation, a "not this," a "not that."The problem is that the Absolute of which Zen Buddhists speak encompasses things finite such that the distinctions made in everyday life are something less than the way things really are. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to things considered numerically distinct—for example, this table and that book. This table and that book are each what it is...